Norway-LTTE ties sour over theft of NGO vehicles

August 21st, 2008 - 4:18 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Aug 21 (IANS) Norway’s decision not to hail a truce the Tamil Tigers declared before the SAARC summit this month seems to have fuelled a crisis that has for the first time soured ties between the rebels and Oslo, the peace facilitator in Sri Lanka.Norway, seen by many in Sri Lanka as sympathetic to the Tigers, has been acutely embarrassed after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) commandeered heavy vehicles belonging to the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), an Oslo-based NGO, in the rebel-held Kilinochchi district.

The NPA, which has worked in Tamil areas since a Norway-backed ceasefire was signed by the LTTE and Colombo in 2002, has been accused of not reporting the theft to the defence ministry.

The NPA says it discovered July 24 that the vehicles had been taken away from a compound in Kilinochchi “in the preceding days” and that it reported the matter to the nation building and infrastructure development ministry.

The vehicles were being used to clear mines in the north as part of a programme that has been suspended since January. The ministry oversees the mine-clearing project.

Colombo says the LTTE will use the vehicles now for its war efforts. The military, which is trying to capture the rebel-held north, has vowed to destroy the vehicles.

According to informed sources who spoke to IANS on the condition of anonymity, the NPA and Norway have both complained to the LTTE. But there is no sign the Tigers plan to return the vehicles, which include two Ashok Leyland trucks, a Tata pick up vehicle, a Tata 407 mini truck and a Tata water tanker.

Also in the lot are an excavator earth moving vehicle, a tractor with water browser trailer, a Toyota Land Cruiser jeep and a Mitsubishi Canter twin cab vehicle.

The LTTE has not reacted publicly on the issue, and diplomats are now linking its action, which is bound to affect its standing in the West, to the unilateral truce it announced last month — and what happened later.

Unknown to most people, Norway worked behind the scenes last month advising the LTTE not to carry out any attack when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit takes place in Colombo Aug 2-3.

Accordingly, on July 22, the LTTE declared a ceasefire, from July 26 to Aug 4, apparently in the hope that it would lead to at least a temporary halt in fighting.

That did not happen. Sri Lanka derisively dismissed the LTTE gesture and vowed to keep up its military onslaught. The Tigers felt badly let down.

The LTTE was more furious that the international community, Norway in particular, did not hail its gesture even if privately they thought it was a good move.

Norway, which had not expected the ceasefire declaration, tried to reason with the LTTE that as a peace facilitator it could not afford to take a stand on any issue that may seem partial to either of the parties in the conflict.

This hasn’t cut much ice with the LTTE, which argues that the international community is repeatedly leaning on it while going soft on Sri Lanka.

The theft of NPA vehicles, discovered July 24 (two days after the LTTE ceasefire became known), has upset Norway, which feels that its stature in Sri Lanka has been compromised as a result. Some sources say that the NPA — and also Norway — may not now want the vehicles back.

Norway has explained its stand on the vehicles to Sri Lankan leaders and briefed other countries linked to the now dead peace process, India included.

But the facilitator remains frustrated that its diplomats are barred by Colombo, along with other diplomats, from going to LTTE areas in the island’s north for talks with Tiger leaders who matter vis-a-vis war and peace.

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